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Northwestern's aversion to the run

If the Wildcats aren't going to throw the ball downfield, they have to be calling more run plays.

Jonathan Daniel

We already knew that Northwestern's offense is not very good, and that was validated when the Wildcats struggled to zero second half points in their 38-17 loss to Nebraska. Part of that is due to play-calling, and part of it is due to a combination of injuries and execution.

The offensive issues are complex, and to some extent, figuring them out requires access to all-22 film and other information we just don't have. However, with the new S&P offensive stats that came out today, we can diagnose some of NU's offensive problems, particularly in run/pass situations.

The biggest issues appear to come on standard downs, which are anything other than:

  • second down with 8 or more yards to go
  • third or fourth down with 5 or more yards to go

Overall, the Wildcats rank 95th nationally on standard downs. They've been stuck right around there all season, and in the new opponent-adjusted ratings, not much has changed. Perhaps the biggest reason for this is that NU is just running the wrong kinds of plays. Take a look at the chart.

Rushing S&P Rank Passing S&P Rank Standard Downs Rush % Rank
64 101 87

Despite being considerably better at running the ball than passing the ball — the gap is even wider since Justin Jackson started getting more carries — Northwestern still runs the ball far less than most of its peers on standard downs.

That makes absolutely no sense, and it makes even less sense when you consider that the Wildcats' pass plays aren't ever likely to be that much more successful than a run play. NU averages just 5.8 yards per passing attempt and perhaps an even worse 10.2 yards per completion. While it would make sense to pass more on standard downs if those passes had a lot of upside, the coaching staff, for better or worse, isn't going to allow call plays like that.

Moreover, a closer look at the split stats shows that Trevor Siemian is averaging just 5.04 yards per attempt inside the opponent's 40 yard line, while Justin Jackson averages 4.2 yards per carry in that same area. On first downs (always standard downs), Siemian averages just 5.76 yards per attempt, while Jackson averages 5.15 yards per rush.

If Northwestern wants to have more success on standard downs, the Wildcats are either going to have to open up the passing game a little bit more or give Jackson even more carries. With the former seemingly out of the question, the latter might put this team in a little bit better position to win.